WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama has long relished a dragged-out Republican primary contest that would leave the eventual GOP nominee battered before the fall election.
He might be getting his wish, a prospect that is firing up Democrats, galvanizing their ranks and boosting fundraising pitches and requests for volunteers.
"They've awakened some sleeping giants," said Ira Leesfield, a Miami attorney and a longtime Democratic fundraiser.
As the GOP voting shifts to contests in the Midwest and West, front-runner Mitt Romney's chief rival, Newt Gingrich, is attacking him at every turn and pledging to stay in the race well into the spring. And Romney is paying a price for it: The former Massachusetts governor's negative perceptions among voters have climbed in recent weeks, a trend that could hurt him in a general election matchup with Obama.
"The Florida primary will be a turning point in this race — the other side is looking at what could be months of brutal, negative tactics that turn people off to politics altogether," Obama campaign manager Jim Messina said in a fundraising pitch to supporters.
The Obama campaign's most recent fundraising report showed it had more than $80 million in the bank, a healthy sum for the coming year.
Democrats — and Obama specifically — are no stranger to drawn-out fights. Hillary Rodham Clinton didn't drop out of the race until June 2008, but both candidates avoided driving up their negative ratings.
Obama's team is trying to take advantage of the extra time in this election year, using the next several weeks to focus on his best political asset: being president. As Republicans grind toward having a nominee, Obama is filling his time with a post-State of the Union agenda underscoring the themes of his re-election bid. That means pushing ideas with mainstream appeal, like helping struggling families refinance their homes or pay for the kids' college education.
It also means not directly engaging Romney for now because to do so would make Obama look more like a presidential candidate than the man running the country. But that has not stopped Obama from making not-so-subtle digs at Romney this week for his views on the auto industry bailout and home foreclosures.
"It is wrong for anybody to suggest that the only option for struggling, responsible homeowners is to sit and wait for the housing market to hit bottom," Obama said in Falls Church, Va., on Wednesday in a clear reference to comments made by Romney to a Las Vegas newspaper last year.
Romney's negative ratings have climbed in recent weeks. Polling by NBC News and The Wall Street Journal showed that 36 percent had a negative feeling toward Romney, compared with 31 percent having positive feelings for him. A separate poll by ABC News and The Washington Post found 49 percent had a negative impression of Romney, a jump of nearly 20 points since September.
Democrats point to a growing storyline about Romney's work as a top executive for Bain Capital, a private equity firm, and soft support among ardent conservatives. Obama deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter noted in a memo Wednesday that a recent Pew Research poll found nearly 3 in 5 GOP primary voters wanted another candidate to enter the race.
"You've got a lot of Republicans who are disenchanted with the 'supposed' nominee in Mitt Romney," said Morgan Jackson, a North Carolina-based Democratic strategist. "As somebody who worked for John Kerry in 2004, we've seen this on our side. There were a lot of folks who liked John Kerry and voted for John Kerry but really wanted to be with somebody else."
Romney, addressing supporters in Tampa, Fla., dismissed suggestions that a lengthy primary fight would hurt his party's chances in the fall.
"A competitive primary does not divide us, it prepares us, and we will win," he said.
But Gingrich gave no indication of bowing out anytime soon. His campaign even distributed signs at his Florida primary night rally that declared, "46 States to Go."
In Florida, Leesfield said he watched the negative ads and said "it put me into high gear." He had planned to raise money for Obama, but said he was now "exponentially more" interested in encouraging his fundraising network to give to Obama's campaign.
In Nevada, Erin Bilbray-Kohn, a member of the Democratic National Committee, said the Republican contest had boosted interest among Democrats organizing their volunteer base. "They're watching the Republicans and they want to do something and what they can do right now is work their precincts," she said.2 comments on this story
Democrats have plenty of bad news on their side. The nation's unemployment rate has consistently topped 8 percent during Obama's presidency, a red line for any incumbent. A Gallup survey showed Obama's approval ratings dropping in North Carolina, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida, all critical to his re-election. In New Hampshire, which Obama carried in 2008, he had an approval rating of about 38 percent.
With a long grind ahead among Republicans, Obama will try to show voters that he and Congress aren't completely in campaign mode.
The White House hopes the first result will be a law in which Congress polices itself on insider trading, then a deal to extend a payroll tax cut. All the while, Obama will be issuing executive orders to try to jolt the economy and win over voters. He also will keep up a brisk pace of fundraisers.
"In 2008 we needed to make change — we needed change," said Gaylene Kanoyton, who leads the local Democratic committee in Hampton, Va. "The theme for 2012 is we need to guard the change."